Around ten, the steward of Sleeper Train Four stepped into my cabin to tell me that my girlfriend was waiting for me in Sleeper Train Six. I thanked him, finished a chapter of The Glass Bead Game, then I put on my backpack and wandered down the aisle to see just whom he could possibly be talking about. I envisioned a veiled oriental temptress reading the Tao Te Ching in an opium cloud. Or it could be some girl from Pittsburgh with an abundance of chin hair. There was no way to tell.
Sleeper Train Six reeked of baijiu and I followed the scent to a cabin full of Han Chinese businessmen who were sitting on the edges of their bunks, grinning and listening intently to a conversation taking place in the cabin next to them. It took me a moment to realize the voices were speaking Australian English. The Chinese men shoved me next door where I belonged.
There were six Aussie girls and a guy from Colorado. I waved and lingered in the hall for a moment, feeling rather creepy.
"Do you mind if I sit down?" I asked. "The steward told me to come see you."
"Hey, that's how I got here," said the guy from Colorado.
It doesn't take long to become an old hand in China. Foreigners tend not to stick around very long. When I told the Australians I'd been in China for seven months, they collectively gasped.
"That's a long time," one of them offered.
I shrugged. I'll be in China for at least another year and a half, I said, and that's when they really began to worry about me.
Before long, the businessmen next door got drunk enough to break up our conversation. I wound up with a cigarette in my mouth, one behind each ear, and several more tucked in my breast pocket. The ringleader invited me to his hometown in Yunnan to slaughter pigs, sheep, and chicken. I accepted the offer and another cigarette.
One of the Aussies and I snuck out to the smoking car and one of the businessmen tagged along. As the Aussie was lighting up, he pulled me aside and pointed at her.
"How old is she?" he asked.
"She told me she was twenty."
I nodded. The man began giggling convulsively, covering his mouth, giggling some more.
"You're sure she's twenty?"
"That's what she told me," I said.
Again with the giggling. Finally, he regained enough composure to explain himself.
"It's just – she's twenty and she smokes cigarettes!"
A shade of genuine embarrassment seeped into his booze-reddened cheeks.
"In the West, many younger women smoke cigarettes," I said. "It doesn't mean the same thing."
"What is he saying about me?" asked the Aussie.
"He says you're very beautiful."
At 10:30, the lights went out, so I bid the foreigners adieu and crept back to my sleeper cabin. I lay awake for several hours, knowing that on the other side of sleep I would be in Yunnan. There was sun in Yunnan. Sun, and minorities, and midgets in Yunnan. Matriarchal societies where the women tilled the fields while the men strummed lutes and picked tangerines and got pickled on homemade plonk. In Yunnan. Yunnan. Gradually, the name had a soporific effect on me and despite my excited nerves, I fell asleep. I awoke the next morning to a strange gilded light coming in through the window. I shielded my eyes and backed away. Cautiously, I placed my hand under it. It was sun. I had arrived in Yunnan.